John Steele Gordon’s latest love letter to capitalism (“Why Enron Always Happens,” November/December 2002) overlooks a few things in its closing eulogy of “our world of widespread abundance.” First, that “abundance” will be news to the 20 percent of the world’s population in developing countries that lives on a dollar a day or less—much of it in those countries that provide the cheap raw materials that drive capitalist expansion in the “advanced” portions of the globe. Second, even in our “prospering” America, millions cannot afford health insurance, adequate child care, or higher education. Third, many of the benefits that American (and Western European and British) workers do enjoy—paid vacations, minimum wages, maximum hours, retirement benefits, and the like—were bestowed only after political and economic struggles through unions and liberal parties, and each and every such benefit was resisted as “socialistic.” Fourth and finally, many of the new century’s technological innovations that have reduced the Hobbesian brutishness of life (for we happy few) rest on research performed at public expense, some of it to sustain the military machine that keeps the world safe for our investments.
Yes, capitalism does tap the selfinterest that is an important component of human nature, and releases energies that increase the wealth of nations. But it takes the altruism and social instincts of humankind—the elements of democratic socialism—to keep self-interest from turning into greed and to assure the equitable sharing of wealth that unrestricted free markets promise but don’t provide without regulation and prodding. Sure, capitalism “works.” Any system does for those who exercise power under its umbrella. But it doesn’t work equally well everywhere and all the time; and it “works” for us here thanks to the much underappreciated welfare state.